It is probably best not to describe one key shot in Alexey Zvyagintsev’s latest suffocating drama. We can say it is among the most striking images in recent cinema. We can also safely add that it confirms the miserable situation of young Alyosha (Matvey Novikov).
The boy lives unwanted amid the ongoing war between his ghastly Moscovian parents. Spiteful Boris (Alexei Rozin) and vain Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are bickering their way towards the worst sort of messy divorce. Both have lovers. He has impregnated the younger, trivial-minded Masha (Marina Vasilyeva). She is carrying on with the older, wealthier and – by the standards of this unforgiving film – relatively humane Anton (Andris Keishs).
One night Zhenya returns home from a tryst and, without bothering to check Alyosha’s room, collapses into bed. The next day she discovers he is missing. Neither she nor her husband shows all that much concern. The largely ignored nuisance will surely turn up eventually.
As in Zvyagintsev's Leviathan and The Return, cinematographer Mikhail Krichman finds a sombre beauty in even the most unpromising locations. The damp outlands of Moscow, where volunteers search for Alyosha, have something of the Zone from Tarkovsky's Stalker about them. The highlight of Evgueni and Sacha Galperine's score is the pounding piano refrain that bookends the action.
Flaws and imperfections
All this combines to create an atmosphere of overwhelming pessimism. When we encounter such stories in serious cinema we usually find ourselves forgiving the flaws and imperfections that trouble all parents. Who are we to judge? Not so much here.
Zvyagintsev has been brave enough to construct his story around bad people and bad parents. They are selfish. They are unmannered. They shut themselves off from empathy until confronted with an unavoidably horrible reminder of Alyosha’s potential fate. There are such people.
Is it also about the state of Russia? When Zvyagintsev layers later scenes with news footage of violent chaos on the country’s borders, it seems as if we’re being nudged in that direction.
Loveless is, however, more about the personal than the public. We have rarely encountered a film that so powerfully exercises Philip Larkin's argument about man handing misery on to man. There is, I believe, something of the coastal shelf about it.